New year, new book recommendations! In honor of Universal Letter Writing Week, we decided to round up some of the most impressive epistolary novels of the past and present. Epistolary novels are unique in that they craft a narrative through the structure of letters, diary entries, or other documents. They prove that letters are not just a time-honored tool for communication but a great way to tell stories.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
by Anne Bronte
Published in 1848, Anne Bronte’s second and final novel tells the tale of Gilbert Markham, who takes in a mysterious tenant, Helen Graham, and her young son. Now secluded at Wildfell Hall, Helen pursues a career of creative freedom, contrary to the norms of 19th-century society. With town rumors aswirl, Helen allows Gilbert to read her diary, revealing the truth behind her past and her fight for domestic independence.
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
A mesmerizing debut novel and winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai. Over seven nights, Halwai transfixes readers with the sprawling tale of his lifelong path to success, from a poor villager in India to a business mogul. Both a piercing character study and a social critique, this epistolary novel uses letters for a comprehensive purpose with maximum impact.
Parable of the Sower
by Octavia Butler
This profound, harrowing, and thought-provoking 1993 release imagines American society ravaged by climate change and spiraling into anarchy. Through the remarkable voice of protagonist Lauren Olamina, who has a condition of hyper-empathy, readers embark on a revolutionary journey about survival, hope, faith, violence, and community. Butler’s science fiction classic packs a punch in examining humanity in all its beauty and horror.
by Susan Rigetti
Aspiring writer, Lora Ricci, is ecstatic when she lands a coveted summer internship at ELLE Magazine. Therein, she meets the enigmatic Cat Wolff, who takes Lora under her wing and whisks her into a life of glamour and prestige. However, this new “perfect” lifestyle soon exposes itself as nothing more than a scam, a cover story. Told through diary entries, emails, and FBI documents, this new release is witty, enigmatic, and unputdownable.
by A.S. Byatt
This remarkable two-fold love story follows a pair of young scholars as they research the lives of two Victorian poets. As the two intellectuals go about uncovering various letters, journals, and poems, this sweeping tale takes shape through stunning prose. A.S. Byatt’s 1990 release crafts romance from a multi-layered angle – meditating on the act of writing, the pursuit of scholarship, the nature of memory, and more.
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky’s first and lesser-known novel, Poor Folk, is strung together by an exchange of letters between two main characters: Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova. The pair are third cousins twice removed, both in a state of destitution. Dostoevsky brilliantly launches his storied literary career with this humanitarian tale that introduces life-long themes of life, poverty, and morality that he tackled at large in his other great works.
by Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker’s gothic classic is brought to life through character letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. The pinnacle of Victorian horror, Dracula is the story of Jonathan Harker, who crosses paths with the infamous undead villain as he attempts to make his move from Transylvania to England. Its eerie atmosphere and intricately crafted suspense make it a timeless epistolary novel sure to give you the creeps.
by Joey Comeau
This humorous 2009 release is a collection of job application cover letters composed by the author addressed to various corporations. The formal monotony of a traditional cover letter is subverted as each letter begins to reveal unexpected, extraneous memories and life experiences. This truly innovative means of crafting interconnected short stories is a pure delight from start to finish (especially for burnt-out job-seekers).
Love Letters to the Dead
by Ava Dellaira
This charming YA read follows Laurel, our grieving protagonist, who lost her sister at a young age. One day, she receives an assignment in English class to write a letter to a dead person. Soon, Laurel has filled a whole notebook with letters to those who died young. Some of the posthumous recipients include Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Amelia Earhart. This literary task prompts a profound journey of self-discovery and acceptance of her sister’s untimely passing.
The Sorrows of Young Werther
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This famed tragic novel – the oldest on our list – immerses us in the life and mind of a young man named Werther through his diary entries. A resounding, painful ode to unrequited love, Goethe’s masterful first novel is a cornerstone of the Sturm and Drang movement as well as a major influence for future artistic movements like Romanticism. A powerful (and controversial) take on all-consuming heartbreak, The Sorrows of Young Werther is the epitome of lamentation turned into beautiful prose.
This Is How You Lose the Time War
by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar
Last but not least, this acclaimed 2019 co-written science fiction piece proves two minds are better than one. The multi-layered story kicks off with an ominous letter found in a dying world. It states: “Burn before reading.” After which, an unlikely correspondence blossoms between two rival agents, both looking to secure the best possible post-war future for each of their factions.
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